Wriggle yourself free of the ‘undeclared’ major

An academic adviser can help students who are undecided about what to study.

For a prospective college student, the idea of selecting a future can lead to months of confusion, indecision or worse: the dreaded “undeclared” major. This tug-of-war match between money, pleasure and skill is a common problem for newly admitted college students. At New York University, up to 20 percent of students are undecided, and many who do enter with a major in mind end up switching at least once before graduation, says William Long, NYU’s associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Many colleges, however, require that students declare a study by the end of their sophomore year. So how should students go about selecting their major in an organized and strategic manner?

According to Shannon O’Brien, the director of academic advising at the academic resource center of Temple University, students should first figure out what they’re not passionate about. “When a student is undeclared, even though they don’t know exactly what they want to do they typically know what they don’t want to do.”

After creating a manageable list of options they like, she suggests that students get to know their academic advisers, whose job it is to help them graduate in four years. They can review course requirements and help students create a comprehensive four-year plan for each likely major.

O’Brien also recommends asking strategic questions when plotting semesters: What are the classes that I’m going to be taking in this major? Are those classes that I’m going to be interested in? What are my strengths?

This should not be too difficult to assess, as Long asserts that undeclared students often have many skills. “They aren’t undecided because they don’t know what to study,” he says. “Rather, they have many interests and need to find ways to focus those interests.”

The next step is to “explore in a strategic way,” O’Brien says. Fulfilling general education requirements early on can help with this process.

Most schools’ general education curricula provides a range of instruction that can guide students through areas of interest. This way, even without declaring a major, they can still test the waters in a variety of areas of study.

“Quite a few students change their mind along the way,” Dr. Long says. “That is, in my view, the beauty of the American liberal arts education — there is freedom to explore.”


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